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Ignorance of The Golden Rule

by Izzy Kalman (September 2004)

The Golden Rule – treat others as you would like to be treated – is the essence of all morality. Yet we learn almost nothing about it, and even those who claim to value this rule (myself included) don’t often live by it. Usually, when we simply respond on the basis of our gut reactions or emotions, we are likely to violate the Golden Rule. Furthermore, the Golden Rule doesn’t require us to always be nice to others. In certain situations, it may actually require us to kill.

The Golden Rule may sound simple. However, it is not always obvious how to apply it, even to highly intelligent people. For instance, one school principal disseminated a document on bullying to the student body. It told of the importance of living by the Golden Rule, and any student who does not follow it (by not being nice to other kids) will be punished. What this principal doesn’t understand is that the very act of punishing people for violating the Golden Rule is itself a violation of the Golden Rule. Would you like to be punished by someone who felt you weren’t being nice to someone else? Not very likely. Then you have no business punishing anyone else for being mean to someone else, either. This doesn’t necessarily mean you should do NOTHING, but punishing certainly is the wrong thing to do.

One individual, an obviously bright man, recently emailed me saying that the results would be disastrous if people truly lived by the Golden Rule. He said that since he likes pork, the Golden Rule would mandate that he serve pork to a kosher-observant Jew. This, obviously, would greatly offend the Jew.

That email rung a bell because I recalled that I had pondered this very same dilemma when I was a child. But I understand now that this is concrete thinking – that you do to others exactly what you would want to be done to YOU. This is not what the Golden Rule means. It requires a higher level of abstraction. Its true meaning is “Treat others the way you would want to be treated IF YOU WERE THE OTHER PERSON.” Thus, you should not serve pork to a kosher-observant Jew since you, yourself, would be offended if you were a kosher- observant Jew and someone knowingly served you something you consider to be a grave sin to eat.

This is a relatively simple example. A more difficult question arises in deciding how to treat criminals. For instance, how do you apply the Golden Rule with a serial killer?

This is how to do it. I ask myself the following question: “If something in me were to snap and I made it my pastime to kill innocent people, how would I want you to treat me?” I would want you to stop me! Do anything in your power to prevent me from continuing my monstrous behavior! Kill me if necessary, but please don’t let me continue being a murderer! Thus, applying the Golden Rule can even require us to kill.

A more mundane example is how do you handle spoiled children who throw tantrums whenever they don’t get what they want? Does the Golden Rule mean we have to grant them every wish? Of course not. I ask myself: “How would I want you to treat me if I were your spoiled child?” Would I want you to indulge my every wish so that I can continue developing into a narcissistic, immature tyrant? No. I wouldn’t want you to yell at me and punish me, but I would want you to set limits so that I can develop self-control. Give me an allowance so that I can learn to budget money and differentiate between what is truly important to me and what isn’t. Let me know you love me, but don’t let me grow up believing that love means buying people whatever they want.

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